The Song Stays in the Picture: Rock Soundtracks in the New Hollywood
Movies are slow to react. Compared to other art forms – certainly popular music – the feature film isn’t particularly adept at capturing the current moment. As a collaborative medium, motion pictures take lots of people and a little while to make. By the time a flick has been written, acted, shot, edited and scored (among many other things), the moment is often long gone.
Because this story is about the intersection of rock ’n’ roll and the movies, consider this as an example: The iconic documentary Dont Look Back was filmed in 1965, when Bob Dylan was still playing folk music solo with an acoustic guitar, and released in 1967, by which point he had gone electric at Newport, released Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and was currently at work on a new phase in a basement in New York State. However great D.A. Pennebaker’s film, it arrived as an artifact. Dylan – not to mention the rock world around him – had already shed his skin a couple of times in the interim.
Meanwhile, another 1967 movies managed to feel contemporary, more in-tune with the present youth culture, in spite of being based on a novella from 1963 and directed by a guy in his mid-thirties. Released late in the year, The Graduate resonated with young audiences in a manner that few major narrative films had. Part of this was due to director Mike Nichols’s choice of screenwriter (Buck Henry) and his casting against type (the diminutive Dustin Hoffman as romantic lead Benjamin Braddock).
But in the five decades since The Graduate first hit screens, more and more emphasis has been placed on the film’s soundtrack, which employed mostly existing tracks from folk-rock stars Simon and Garfunkel. With the exception of “Mrs. Robinson,” Paul Simon’s songs were not written for this movie, which allowed Nichols and company to underscore the confusing and nagging emotions of the characters without putting too fine a point on the specifics. As others have noted, theses tunes became the movie’s Greek Chorus, while also forming a bond with young viewers whose own lives had a soundtrack of rock and pop music.
Watch 'The Graduate''s Closing Scene
“In 1967, there was a very strong cultural identity linked to rock 'n' roll, and Simon and Garfunkel are a good representation of that,” Carnegie Mellon University Professor David Shumway told The Atlantic. “Benjamin’s been a perfect conformist until he graduates. One of the things the ’60s counterculture was about was individual freedom.”
As much as a watershed moment as The Graduate was for youth culture, rock music and the movies, it was hardly the first Hollywood product to lean on rock ’n’ roll to galvanize younger audiences. Back in 1955, Blackboard Jungle had made “Rock Around the Clock” the theme of teen delinquents – and had teen viewers dancing (and rioting) in the aisles. Other movies treated rock as a fad, a way for producers to make money by providing “something for the kids.” The Girl Can’t Help It begat Elvis Presley movies begat Beatles movies (which sneaked jump-cut innovation and anarchy into lucrative Beatlemania).
But The Graduate was different. Sure, the music forged bonds with the people who saw themselves in the movie’s college-age characters and the soundtrack was exceedingly popular and spent multiple weeks atop the Billboard albums chart. But it wasn’t a cynical choice made by Nichols to use Simon and Garfunkel’s music in the film. In terms of the director’s creative vision, this wasn’t “something for the kids.” This was a decision to take music that many adults felt was frivolous, and use it prominently in a serious movie – thus elevating both the music and the struggles of the generation that saw themselves in Benjamin Braddock. It was an empathetic choice, not least because Nichols, though older, actually liked the music.
“I’d been listening to their album every morning in the shower before I’d go to work, and then one morning it just hit me: ‘Schmuck! This is your soundtrack!’,” Nichols told Time Out New York in 2012. “It’s one of those miraculous moments you get when you’re making a movie, where everything somehow comes together.”
And everything did come together – The Graduate was a hit, so was the soundtrack and each was being taken seriously by the arbiters of culture. The critical and commercial success almost instantly guaranteed the movie’s future influence. As other writers, directors and producers, who genuinely liked rock and pop music, began making prominent films, they would help establish the rock soundtrack.
The next big moment came with 1969’s Easy Rider. Where The Graduate had danced around counterculture ideas with its folk-rock soundtrack proving palatable to more mature viewers (thus giving Simon and Garfunkel as many middle-aged fans as young ones), Easy Rider was an almost lethal dose of the counterculture with a full-throttle rock ’n’ roll soundtrack to match. As audiences watched Billy and Captain America traverse the American Southwest, they heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Byrds, the Band and, most importantly, Steppenwolf. For anyone who’s seen Easy Rider (or even just clips of the film), it’s impossible to hear “Born to Be Wild” and not think of a pair of motorcycles bringing their “heavy metal thunder” to the open road.
Watch 'Easy Rider''s Opening
This was ’60s counterculture in capital letters – sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll splattered on the silver screen. As such, it was no surprise that many of the movie’s actor-director Dennis Hopper and actor-producer Peter Fonda were rock fans. Even the production company behind the picture, formed by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, had ties to the music world: They created The Monkees before seeking more serious projects.
“No one had really used found music in a movie before, except to play on radios or when someone was singing in a scene,” Hopper told Interview. “But I wanted Easy Rider to be kind of a time capsule for that period, so while I was editing the film I would listen to the radio. That’s where I got ‘Born to Be Wild’ and ‘The Pusher’ and all those songs.”
Although Fonda wanted Crosby, Stills and Nash to soundtrack the entire movie, Easy Rider ended up using a range of artists’ material. The result was the first modern soundtrack album, featuring 10 songs by eight different credited artists, and was a big hit (peaking at No. 6 on the U.S. chart and going gold within a few months of its release in the summer of 1969).
Although the surprise smash Easy Rider remains the big counterculture movie and a massive influence on film and rock’s use in the medium, it wasn’t the only 1969 movie to feature (relatively) current rock tracks. Medium Cool used music by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and Love. When the people behind Midnight Cowboy sought a pop-rock theme, they nearly employed Randy Newman’s “Cowboy” and Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” (which wasn’t completed in time) before selecting “Everybody’s Talkin’,” sung by Harry Nilsson. And Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant was built around the epic song by counterculture folkie Arlo Guthrie.
Watch a Scene From 'Mean Streets'
This trend would only expand in the next decade. Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) found its soul in three Leonard Cohen songs. Bob Dylan composed the soundtrack for (and appeared in) Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) And Martin Scorsese would begin displaying his talent for instilling the energy of rock ’n’ roll gems into his films with 1973’s Mean Streets. As the so-called New Hollywood got a transfusion of young talent and audiences of teenagers became adults, rock and pop soundtracks became normal. And then they became big business.
A decade after The Graduate inspired a new method for soundtracking feature films with popular music, Saturday Night Fever built a disco inferno with a collection of dance hits – many written and performed by the Bee Gees. To classify the 1977 double LP as a hit is an understatement. It was a multi-platinum blockbuster that lorded over the Billboard charts for half a year, ruled the Grammys and remains one of the Top 10 best-selling albums in history.
The subsequent decades would make this sort of music/film cross-promotion (think Huey Lewis and Back to the Future or Bryan Adams and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) not only commonplace but lucrative. If the movie was a hit, invariably so was the soundtrack, and sometimes vice-versa.
When sales of physical album releases dwindled in the 21st century (the future is no longer in plastics, as The Graduate once famously told us), so did the big hit movie soundtrack. But it has not altered the use of found music, older and newer rock, pop, R&B and metal songs, in the film medium – as well as cinematic television series from The Wonder Years to The Sopranos to The Americans.
The movie industry might have been sluggish to begin taking rock ’n’ roll seriously as soundtrack-worthy music. And the film industry can still be slow to react to the moment. But since the undeniably influential marriage of modern music and film in The Graduate, feature films have created plenty of iconic rock-movie moments of their own.